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Reconsidering the Dessler/North Op-Ed on Settled Alarm, Climategate-as-Distraction (Part III in a series)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- March 19, 2010

[The other parts of this series on the activism of Texas A&M climatologists are here: Part I, Part IIPart IV, and Part V]

Scientists find themselves fighting science when it comes to the highly unsettled physical basis of climate change. An example of this is the March 7th Houston Chronicle op-ed by two Texas A&M climate scientists (and four colleagues from other universities), “On Global Warming, the Science is Solid.”

I took general exception to their piece in Part I in this series, titled “Andrew Dessler and Gerald North on Climategate, Climate Alarmism, and the State of Texas’s Challenge to the U.S. EPA’s Endangerment Finding.” Chip Knappenberger yesterday took issue with their claim that the Texas Petition was flawed because it “contains very little science.”

This post critically reconsiders the op-ed, which argued, in effect, that the science behind climate alarmism is settled and that Climategate is a distraction from the core issues. Just the opposite may well be true.

Some Background

Evidently, Dr. Dessler wrote this op-ed and got sign-on from other Texas scientists to make it a ‘consensus’ statement. Here is how the Houston Chronicle attributed it:

This article was submitted by Andrew Dessler, professor of atmospheric sciences, Texas A&M University; Katharine Hayhoe, research associate professor of atmospheric sciences, Texas Tech University; Charles Jackson, research scientist, Institute for Geophysics, The University of Texas at Austin; Gerald North, distinguished professor of atmospheric sciences, Texas A&M University; André Droxler, professor of earth science and director of the Center for the Study of Environment and Society, Rice University; and Rong Fu, professor, Jackson School of Geosciences, The University of Texas at Austin. 

I refer to the piece as Dessler/North because the activist-oriented Dr. Dessler is the leader, and the most distinguished climate scientist of the six named authors is Dr. North.

Criticism of Dessler/North (et al.) Piece

A critique follows with the exact language of the (entire) op-ed in quotation and black and my comments in blue for ease of reading.


“In recent months, e-mails stolen from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit in the United Kingdom and errors in one of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s reports have caused a flurry of questions about the validity of climate change science.”

Comment: Why not use the term that everyone knows–Climategate (one can always use quotation marks to qualify it)? And if you know the emails were stolen, can you solve the mystery for the rest of us? If this presumption is no more than informed speculation, what does this say about your scientific belief system? You are speaking as professional scientists, after all, and not public relations specialists.

“These issues have led several states, including Texas, to challenge the Environmental Protection Agency’s finding that heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide (also known as greenhouse gases) are a threat to human health.

However, Texas’ challenge to the EPA’s endangerment finding on carbon dioxide contains very little science.”

A straw man argument? As Chip Knappenberger explained yesterday, the Texas Petition was not supposed to present science, it was filed to ask the EPA to revisit the science based upon recent revelation that many aspects of the process which produced the current state of science were flawed.

“Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott admitted that the state did not consult any climate scientists, including the many here in the state, before putting together the challenge to the EPA.”

The climate science world does not revolve around College Station, Texas, any more than it does/did Norwich, England (the home of the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia of Climategate infamy). There is no reason to believe that the best of the best (much less politically impartial) climate scientists reside here in Texas. Non-Texas scientists regularly challenge Texas scientists, as the Richard Lindzen-Gerald North debate here in Houston in January attests.

There are other issues lurking below the surface–is a “skeptic” or just “non-alarmist” hirable in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences or the Department of Oceanography at Texas A&M? Is there groupthink going on? Must junior faculty members at your and other Texas universities remain quiet? Does your statement advance open thinking and a ‘challenge culture’ at our universities? Why is there no such statement at, say, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Harvard University? Is climate science politicized where there are such statements?

 “Instead, the footnotes in the document reveal that the state relied mainly on British newspaper articles to make its case.”

Again, the case being made is about challenges to the state of existing climate science. It doesn’t matter where those challenges are presented, but rather their merit. Along with the investigative and summary reporting from some British newspapers (and other sources), the Texas Petition also includes much direct evidence of scientific misconduct found directly within the Climategate emails themselves.

“Contrary to what one might read in newspapers, the science of climate change is strong.”

“Strong”? Compared to what? Can science be “strong” but not settled? Is it being claimed that the science is settled too?

The error bars around past and future temperature projections are large, even huge. The whole range is in dispute. (Dr. North’s warming estimate has a range that lies outside of the IPCC range, for example.) Aerosols? Oceanic thermal lag? Cloud feedbacks? Stratospheric water vapor? And last but not least, given the slowdown of warming in the last decade or more–what about natural variability?  These crucial areas are in open dispute with profound implications for sensitivity estimates of greenhouse gas forcing.

Are today’s climate models “strong”? The IPCC report stated in its last assessment:

“The set of available models may share fundamental inadequacies, the effects of which cannot be quantified.”  – IPCC, Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis (Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 805.

That does not sound like “strong science” to me. (Whether or not it is “best science” is another question.) 

“Our own work and the immense body of independent research conducted around the world leaves no doubt regarding the following key points:

• •?The global climate is changing.”

A 1.5-degree Fahrenheit increase in global temperature over the past century has been documented by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Numerous lines of physical evidence around the world, from melting ice sheets and rising sea levels to shifting seasons and earlier onset of spring, provide overwhelming independent confirmation of rising temperatures. Measurements indicate that the first decade of the 2000s was the warmest on record, followed by the 1990s and the 1980s. And despite the cold and snowy winter we’ve experienced here in Texas, satellite measurements show that, worldwide, January 2010 was one of the hottest months in that record.”

Recovery from a Little Ice Age since the mid-19th century? El Nino influencing current temperature trends? What is being hidden in a rush to equate climate change to humans? Natural variability is very important too.

This general recitation of facts about the earth’s climate behavior ignores the details that matter to human health and welfare–exactly what is being considered by the EPA. And it is in such details that Climategate and the IPCC error (as laid out in the Texas Petition) have the most potential to misdirect our scientific knowledge (for example, the melting of Himalayan glaciers).

Whether or not this past winter was warm globally is small consolation to many Americans who dealt with harsh winter weather. Certainly, a bad winter in the South doesn’t disprove anthropogenic global warming. But what it does disprove is the notion that weather/climate events that most impact us are eminently knowable and preordained by “global warming.” Regional impacts of climate change, after all, are a health-and-welfare issue. And regional predictions from climate models are unreliable.

“• •?Human activities produce heat-trapping gases.

Any time we burn a carbon-containing fuel such as coal or natural gas or oil, it releases carbon dioxide into the air. Carbon dioxide can be measured coming out of the tailpipe of our cars or the smokestacks of our factories. Other heat-trapping gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide, are also produced by agriculture and waste disposal. The effect of these gases on heat energy in the atmosphere is well understood, including factors such as the amplification of the warming by increases in humidity.”

Again, what is really important is in the missing detail.

Yes, human greenhouse gases lead to a general warming pressure on the earth’s climate. But there are many processes in between a higher GHG atmospheric concentration and higher temperatures. And it is within the complex interaction of these processes (many of which are not fully understood, or perhaps even recognized), that the ultimate climate response is determined. And the science is far from settled in precisely this crucial area.

” •?•?Heat-trapping gases are very likely responsible for most of the warming observed over the past half century.”

“There is no question that natural causes, such as changes in energy from the sun, natural cycles and volcanoes, continue to affect temperature today. Human activity has also increased the amounts of tiny, light-scattering particles within the atmosphere. But despite years of intensive observations of the Earth system, no one has been able to propose a credible alternative mechanism that can explain the present-day warming without heat-trapping gases produced by human activities.”

As Chip Knappenberger has argued in-depth at MasterResource, the use of the term “very likely” to describe a human role in “most of the warming over the past half century” is unjustified—rendered so by recent scientific findings. Dessler/North/EPA/IPCC are behind-the-times on this claim. Again, the details matter.

“• •?The higher the levels of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, the higher the risk of potentially dangerous consequences for humans and our environment.”

Is this a ‘maybe’ or ‘possibility’ statement? Could increasing concentrations also improve benefits, even with extreme scenarios such as man-made warming preventing a new ice age (as may already have occurred, according to the suggestion by environmentalist James Lovelock)?

“A recent federal report, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, commissioned in 2008 by the George W. Bush administration, presents a clear picture of how climate change is expected to affect our society, our economy and our natural resources. Rising sea levels threaten our coasts; increasing weather variability, including heat waves, droughts, heavy rainfall events and even winter storms, affect our infrastructure, energy and even our health.”

This Report is hardly the bastion of scientific credibility that Dessler/North make it out to be. Knappenberger described a draft of this report as “a fantasy piece on how [the authors] wished the state of climate science to be, rather than how it actually is.”
The final product was little better—emphasizing the potential negatives over the positives, and presenting, in general, an overly pessimistic view of the potential impacts of potential climate change on the U.S.—when there is plenty to be optimistic about. 

“The reality of these key points is not just our opinion. The national academies of science of 32 nations, and every major scientific organization in the United States whose members include climate experts, have issued statements endorsing these points. The entire faculty of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M as well as the Climate System Science group at the University of Texas have issued their own statements [here and here) endorsing these views. In fact, to the best of our knowledge, there are no climate scientists in Texas who disagree with the mainstream view of climate science.”

This is the argument from authority. Consensus is not science, and if there was clear science and a ‘consensus,’ Climategate would be unknown to history.

There have been previous “consensus” views across the sciences that have been proven wrong, from central planning as a social ideal to the false alarms of the Malthusian/neo-Malthusian scares (the “population bomb,” mineral resource exhaustion, etc.).

There was a consensus that Enron was a great company too (I fell for that one …), which brings up the parallels between Enron and Climategate for students of fads and fallacies–and internal groupthink.

The global cooling scare was not a consensus, but don’t tell that to such ferocious climate alarmists (now warmists) Stephen Schneider and Obama science advisor John Holdren. Humility is in order to those who want to say the science speaks with one voice for climate policy.

“We are all aware of the news reports describing the stolen e-mails from climate scientists and the errors in the IPCC reports. While aspects of climate change impacts have been overstated, none of the errors or allegations of misbehavior undermine the science behind any of the statements made above.”

Talking about Climategate? Why not use the term–even in quotation marks to indicate that it is a catch term, in your opinion?

“Errors”–what and how severe? In fact, what the “stolen” emails reveal is a hurried, panicked push to spin the science toward alarm. And if the authors have not read the emails (as North has admitted), are you sure there is not fire where there is smoke?

“In particular, they do not alter the conclusions that humans have taken over from nature as the dominant influence on our climate.”

Is nature optimal and the human influence bad, much less catastrophic? What value system is being snuck into the physical science debate? Many, myself included, fear that the natural scientists sounding the climate alarm have an unwavering, almost religious, notion that the natural world is fragile, and the human influence, whatever and whenever, is bad and worse. But the history of failed mini-climate alarms, as stated by Dr. North on other occasions, gives pause for such a gloomy view of the world. 

  And the Sins of Omission …

These scientists could have trumpeted the positives of the human influence on climate (and in particular CO2 as the “green” greenhouse gas); the benign distribution of the enhanced greenhouse effect (toward nights and the coldest regions’ winters); and the less-than-linear (logarithmic) effect of greenhouse forcing on temperature. But that is the detail–detail that goes missing when a case for alarm is condensed into a 750-word op-ed. A qualitative finding of a human influence on climate, after all, does not translate into a quantitative case for climate alarm. The human influence can be benign, and it can be positive. This is where the work of climate economists such as Robert Mendelsohn of Yale University becomes very important.


As is true of many polarized debates, the truth is somewhere in the middle. That middle has been explored by none other than Gerald North, the subject of Part IV in this series. His long held personal views suggest that the alarm of his colleague Dr. Dessler is exaggerated. But will the real Dr. North please stand up?


  1. Conor  

    I appreciate the folks on Master Resource consistently posting plain-language explanations and discussions of the aspects of climate science, especially for the non-scientists among us. My personal take has always been that, intuitively, I know that human beings can impact the environment in which we live, but that the degree of the impact and the result have not been proven.

    Thanks for keeping the discussion going and for not shouting your detractors down, but attempting to engage them in rigorous debate (the likes of which are lost in most policy discussions these days).


  2. Chris  

    One sin of omission: global temps are high now due to once in a decade strong el nino. However, if you go back one or two years, global temps in 2008-2009 were the same as global temps in 1980 (according to satellite data) for many months.

    Second sin of omission: definition of record. Which record? Satellite (only 30 years old), ground (about 120 years old), ice cores (only two that exist, one artic and the other antartice).

    Third sin of omission: no mention of medieval warm period or little ice age to provide balance.

    Fourth sin of emission: no mention of the numerous adjustments to the ground based measurements by NASA (GISS) which are questionable to begin with, and outright biased in the minds of many.



  3. Joseph A Olson, PE  

    It is “very likely” that the few million humans alive at the time had absolutely nothing to do with the end of the Last Glacial Maximum. For 100,000 years all of Canada was covered by an ice sheet up to 3 miles thick. Beginning 12,000 years ago this ice mass melted and for the next 2,000 years there was a melt-thaw cycle with the final result of raising sea level 440 ft and exposing Canada. All this was acomplished with NO EVIDENCE of human involvement or radical change in atmospheric CO2. And this Milankovitch Cycle was repeated two previous times before the LGM. (fact check, google “LGM”)

    When the federal government earmarks $2 billion a year for ‘endangerment findings’ the ONLY thing they will find is ‘danger’ and the grant seeking warm-mongers are the embodiment of this failed funding effort. We have had a tax payer funded carbon witch hunt for two decades, not to find any scientific truth, but to empower the government and enslave the public.

    The ‘deniers’ websites are popular because they offer REAL science and real scientific debate. We have pulled the curtain on the man behind the machine, OZ will never be the same. Now click your heels, you are free to go home again.


  4. Peter Wilson  

    “We are all aware of the news reports describing the stolen e-mails”
    This in itself is interesting, implying as it does that these “scientists” are prepared to publicly comment on the contents and implications of the emails without having read them, but based only on media reports. To comment on evidence you have not examined (but which is freely available to examine, unlike the data supporting alarmism) can hardly be compatible with a proper scientific practice. This simply provides more evidence of the shut eyed, I’m not listening type of denial of contrary evidence which is at the root of the problem in the first place


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